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San Antonio Tea & Herb Enthusiasts Message Board Tea & Herb TASTING & APPRECIATION, Evaluation, Tasting Notes, Certification › Roasting, Aging, Baking and their effects on Oolong Tea

Roasting, Aging, Baking and their effects on Oolong Tea

A former member
Post #: 258
What is Oolong tea?

Oolong refers to a process. The process involves of Growing/ Picking/ Sun Drying/ Air Drying. Next, the tea leaves are subjected to rack drying and then rolling. Rolling is what gives oolong its ball like form. Finally the tea is baked. This final step prevents the tea from oxidizing further. During this process, the weather plays a critical role to ensure pleasant tea.
The category of Oolong is a broad one. It includes both green teas (lightly oxidized) as well as red teas (heavily oxidized). In addition it includes lightly baked teas as well as heavily baked teas. A superior oolong tea is the perfect combination of level of oxidization and degree of baking.

What is baked Oolong tea?

In the art of Oolong tea processing, baking is the final step. It is also the last chance to influence a tea's composition of flavors. In the old days, processing tea was a greater effort. Traditionally, to bake Oolong, tea was placed in cylindrical woven bamboo wicker baskets that were stacked, one on top of the other, and placed over a burner. The burner held charcoal that had to be tended frequently. The person who was the Oolong baker would check on and adjust the fire in order to maintain the necessary constant temperature.

This Oolong baking method is known as charcoal baking and is still used today by those interested in preserving the art of traditional tea production. Charcoal baking of Oolong takes a great deal of time and patience and the Oolong baker has to work around an open fire, so smoke is a constant obstacle. Smoke can give a subtle smoky hint that can sometimes overpower the flavor of the tea.

Oolong tea baking today involves cooking the tea in large upright ovens. These ovens are designed to produce a constant heat rather than maintaining heat through insulation (just as the traditional porous baskets did not maintain the heat from the burner). It’s important that the ovens deliver a consistent temperature from the heat source throughout the baking process. These ovens operate at a low temperature over the course of three to four hours to create a "caramelesque" glaze over the tea that serves to both protect the tea by drawing out excess moisture and improve the aroma and taste quality of the tea.

Why bake Oolong tea in the first place?

There are two reasons for baking Oolong; one is to protect and stabilize the quality while simultaneously extending the shelf life, the other is to enhance the tea’s fragrance and flavor. Baking Oolong removes one more layer of moisture from the tea, thus increasing the time span that the tea's flavor will remain consistent. This period can last anywhere from one to three years. When we speak about enhancing the flavor and fragrance, we refer to the citric notes that become more distinct and detectable as a result of the baking process.

Baked Oolong has undergone an extended baking time. Tea is constantly absorbing moisture from the air so, as time goes on, it may be necessary to re-bake an Oolong to bring back some of the more desired flavors that were originally present.

What’s the deal with the percentages?

Each Oolong tea can be given a number indicating the amount it has been baked. Number one is the least amount and ten is the most. When percentages are assigned to indicate the degree to which an Oolong has been baked, it is derived from this one to ten point scale (a five equals 50%).

All Oolong tea is baked. The term "Baked Oolong" refers to Oolong that has a degree of roast that alters the flavor of the tea (around 30%). If I can taste the bake, I call it baked. The rating of three would be a very light bake that highlights some of the tea's underlying good qualities. An Oolong that is rated a 9 or a 10 might appeal to coffee drinkers. However, according to Chinese medicine, it is not good for people to consume too much highly baked tea.

When this step is done correctly, there is no burnt or unpleasant flavor from the extensive baking time. A heavy bake may sit hard on the palate at first. As a bit of time passes, the tea "rests" and the flavors mellow out, becoming extremely agreeable. This phenomenon of a heavy baked Oolong is referred to as "fire in the tea." Too much fire can be harsh at first, but this harshness will dissipate over time.

How do the tea masters know which tea to bake and how long to bake it for?

In order to make baked tea one must first produce a tea that is suitable for baking. The tea producer must decide ahead of time that their intended result is baked Oolong so that the withering and oxidizing steps of tea production should all be done to a level that is appropriate for making baked tea. The extent and the degree to which a tea is to be baked should be decided early on in tea production. This is preferable than to use the baking step as a heavy handed method to change the tea’s original qualities. It is a mistake to take a lightly oxidized tea that has a bit of the green tea flavor and try to change it into a classic Dong Ding Oolong flavor through extended baking.

What is the significance of aged oolong tea?

Aged oolong is the comfort food of Taiwanese tea culture. It meets the psychological and physical needs of calm and stability in a current context of modernization and rapid paced life. Today, Taiwan is facing some interesting changes. Home to The Taipei 101 Tower, the world’s tallest building, and The Taiwan High Speed Rail, Taiwan is truly a nation on the move. The people of Taiwan embrace the convenience of this new standard of living but are nostalgic for the traditions of simpler times. Aged tea fulfills this need and provides a comforting familiar door to the old world. Aged oolong doesn’t try to excite, but rather seeks to create a regenerative connection between the heart and the mind.

The world of tea recognizes Taiwanese oolong for its fresh floral and fruit flavor and its’ complexity. This is a principal difference between fresh, seasonal and aged oolong. With fresh oolong, fragrance is often a requisite, but with aged oolong, the fragrance has gently dissipated into a solid feeling of comfort and substance. So if you find yourself seeking cultural depth and substance in modern times, then aged oolong might be for you.
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